I don't really know who he was—an ambassador, perhaps, or a spy—but I know we let him down. The VIP mission was simple: escort him across town and deliver him to an extraction point. No chance. They were on us in seconds, firing from grubby apartment windows, and we all died on the asphalt. Game over.
Split-second reversals of fortune like these pepper every match in Insurgency. It thrives on the calm before the storm; the tense slinking through ruined Middle Eastern villages before silence erupts into quick firefights. Insurgency sneers at the garish explosions and comic-book heroics of Call of Duty and Battlefield; much as the popular Half-Life 2 mod that preceded it, it keeps its sights on cold reality.
Insurgency's devotion to realism means that players fall dead after two shots at most, and the absence of killcams means you'll likely die without seeing who hit you—and even if you survive a hit, health doesn't regenerate. The brutal approach works, so long as you pay close attention to the brief but comprehensive tutorial mission. This is the stuff of nightmares for FPS newcomers, especially as there's no single-player campaign, so it's good that the community is usually quick to answer even the most noobish questions.
Sound and fury
This uncommon helpfulness is due to the knowledge that well-equipped players make a better team. Only kills grant you supply, a resource that's used to upgrade and mod weapons before each match. It's a testament to the work New World Interactive has done here that the pressure created by this mechanic makes the entire experience more rewarding. I all but jumped out of my chair after scoring my first kill after minutes of playing target practice for the opposing team, and that high helped me feel less ashamed to breathe the same virtual air as my teammates.
At times I almost thought that air was real. Sound is the great triumph of Insurgency, and it reveals its power in the muffled cracks of gunfire or in the whispered squish of boots of gravel. It isn't fluff; I can't count how many times I scored a kill because I heard an enemy making too much racket in an adjoining room. The sound design works so well in part because the dreary environments scattered across the 12 maps complement it, even if they never achieve the same level of mastery. New World has done a decent job with the Source engine, but the graphics fare better in maps depicting cramped streets of Baghdad than in more open environments featuring hills and trees. Out there, it's only a step above the original Counter-Strike.
But the graphics serve their purpose well. Save for icons indicating objectives or the locations of nearby teammates, Insurgency's spartan UI leaves out clutter like mini-maps, crosshairs, ammo counts, and health bars. Not only does this drum up the focus on realism, but it spotlights the pleasing particle effects such as bullets flicking plaster off of walls. In its best moments, it reminds you that combat's not just about you; it's about formulating and enacting strategies with the players around you in the five competitive and two cooperative modes.
In this together
That cooperation is the reason for Insurgency's two-hit kills. New World's realism nudges even the most maverick players toward teamwork, and it's not uncommon to see whole squadrons in the 32-player maps making careful forays into hostile territory. Your teammates, in essence, become your hit points. I felt this most strongly in Insurgency's "Push" mode, which once sent us tiptoeing through Baghdad to capture three sequential objectives. My two teammates had died, using up their only life, so I shuffled to the next objective alone, shotgunning enemies in my way. And, miraculously, I captured it. The following sight of my teammates respawning as a reward yielded the most relief I'd had in gaming in recent months.
Tiny squads seem to have vanished in the days since Insurgency made the jump from early access to its official launch. Full 32-player maps are common now (along, alas, with strings of friendly fire kills), but should Insurgency ever slip back down to its days of dismal player populations, it still has two cooperative modes with scary smart AI tend to make up for it. They duck, they flank you, they kill you, and it's so much fun. And as with so much else about Insurgency, it's fun that's borne out of the rewards of working with other players and saving them so you can capture that all-important node or destroy a weapons cache. If it's cruel, it's only to be kind.
There may be prettier and more heavily populated first person shooters, but few reward teamwork as well as Insurgency.